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Print Book Use Is Falling Faster in Research Libraries

27 August 2017

From The Scholarly Kitchen:

In late 2010, I was thinking quite a bit about book use in research libraries. The conventional wisdom was that “no one uses print books anymore” in libraries like mine, and indeed annual data provided by the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) showed a pretty clear decline in book circulations: between 1991 and 2008 (the most recent data available at that time), the number of initial circulations in ARL libraries had fallen by over a quarter. And when I ventured into the book stacks in my own library I usually found them spookily deserted.

. . . .

But I was haunted by a passing comment a colleague had made to me a few years earlier, noting that the conclusions we draw from library usage data can easily be confounded by changes in the library’s user population. It occurred to me that if we really want to understand what’s happening with regard to library patrons and printed books, we need to take into account the changing nature of our patron base. And the simplest and most consistent change in that population is growth over time: university enrollment tends to grow from year to year.

The question I decided to examine, then, was: how much of the change in individual patron behavior is being hidden by raw circulation data? Clearly, if the size of your patron base is growing while circulation numbers remain the same, that means that the average patron is using the printed collection less; and if the circulation numbers are actually falling while your patron base is growing, that means the average patron is using the library at a more steeply-declining rate than the circulation data suggest.

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ARL libraries had seen a fairly steady number of initial circulation transactions between 1995 and 2008, with totals hovering between 36 and 40 million. However, during that same period the aggregate circulation rate fell by almost 50% —a significant change in patron behavior, and one entirely masked by the raw circulation trend.

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What came next was, for me, even more interesting: I had a great deal of trouble getting my study published. I submitted it to a journal with a particular interest in collection development in research libraries, and it was rejected. Then I submitted it to a journal focused on library management; no luck there either. I eventually decided to submit it in an abridged version to a less formal venue, and the report was published in Library Journal under the title “Print on the Margins: Circulation Trends in Major Research Libraries.” The data set was too large to embed into the article, so I pulled out a few noteworthy institutional examples and provided a link to the full data set for those wanting to investigate further.

That piece was published in mid-2011, and over the past couple of years I’ve been feeling a growing sense that it was time to revisit the ARL data and see what’s happened in research libraries since.

. . . .

In 2009, what had been a fairly steady state in initial circulations between 1995 changed dramatically, and there has been a hard and steady decline ever since. Between 2009 and 2015, total initial circulations in ARL libraries fell by almost half (from 36 million to 19 million).

. . . .

[A]ny library that is seeing a steep decline in the use of its print collection should probably let that trend inform a serious examination of its space and budget allocations. (And given that the average decline in circulations per student since 1995 has been so dramatic — from 25 to 7, a 72% decrease — there are lots of research libraries seeing steep declines.)

Link to the rest at The Scholarly Kitchen

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3 Comments to “Print Book Use Is Falling Faster in Research Libraries”

  1. I would be curious to see which majors are increasing in enrollment and which are decreasing. If enrollment in the majors that require more “hard-core” research are declining, or those departments are shifting to electronic journals and databases because of cost, then it might explain part of the decline.

  2. Which is easier to ‘search’?

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